Monday 1 August 2022
Monday 25 July 2022
As I’ve restarted my blog (after an absence of six years) with a shark-related post, here’s another one regarding a piece of music I produced, based around an old sailor's account of an attack by tiger sharks.
I produced this track about four years ago, and shared it on my Soundcloud site, but my blog was on hold at the time.
On the sound file sharing site Freesound, I came across a remarkable recording of an old sailor telling the tale of the day his captain fell overboard from his sailing ship in the South China Sea (freesound.org/people/dinger154/sounds/396518/ ).
I contacted the Freesound member who had shared it (dinger154), asking about the sailor and his accent. Dinger 154 replied:
"All the old English sailors had a generic accent that never did identify exactly where they came from. They picked it up over the years of just speaking to each other, similar thing happened in the Army. This old boy's name was Dick. I met him in a pub in Portsmouth 40 years ago when he must have been about 80 years old. One of the last old proper sailors. He had skin burned mahogany colour by the sun and more wrinkles than your grandma."
I found the story incredibly evocative and compelling, and produced this tune incorporating Dick's tale.
No doubt Dick is long gone (he'd be maybe 120 by now) and I am very grateful to dinger154 for sharing his old recording (with Creative Commons 0 licence) and preserving Dick's voice and story for posterity.
My tune also incorporates a recording of gulls shared by another Freesound member, acclivity, (freesound.org/people/acclivity/sounds/38956/ under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC 3.0) Licence) and another by laurent, of the creaking rope of a moored boat (freesound.org/people/laurent/sounds/15553/ also shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC 3.0) Licence). The Chinese-sounding instrument is a simulated pipa playing a Japanese scale, that I played and recorded through Garageband.
The location that Dick mentions is Zamboanga in the Philippines. I love the way his old sailor's voice pronounces it as 'Zambawanger'.
The story's pretty grim but life was hard before the mast, and full of dangers!
Saturday 23 July 2022
I have never seen a Basking Shark.
I realise I'm not alone in that gap in my experience. After all, the Basking Shark, although the second largest fish and shark species on the planet (after the Whale Shark), is a sea-living giant, often spending winter months offshore or in deeper waters. Even when it comes closer to Britain and Ireland's coasts in summer time, it is usually off less populated parts of our west coasts. But it does sometimes come REALLY close inshore. With a typical adult basking shark reaching 7.9 metres in length (that's 26 feet in old money - longer than four six-foot-tall fridges laid end-to-end!) and the largest being over 12 metres, plus a stonking great big dorsal fin sticking up out of its back, people do often see them as they cruise slowly around, feeding at the surface of the sea. Top spotting locations around the British coast are Devon and Cornwall, around the Isle of Man and up and down the west coast of Scotland, particularly around the Inner Hebrides. But I've never seen one.
A bit of background basking shark biology follows: Basking sharks (given the scientific name Cetorhinus maximus) are found all around the world, generally in the temperate oceans. They, like Whale Sharks and only one other species of shark (the Megamouth Shark), are filter feeders that eat zooplankton, other invertebrates and very small fish. They cruise slowly through denser patches of plankton with their huge mouth open, forcing seawater out through their gills and trapping their tiny prey on specialised structures on their gills, before swallowing them. Their name comes from their habit of swimming slowly at the sea's surface, feeding as they go, thus looking like they are basking in the sun. Of the many other names basking sharks have been given, the commonly used name ‘sun-fish’ also reflects this habit of surface feeding in sunny, calm weather.
Globally, the World Conservation Union, the IUCN, has listed the basking shark as an Endangered species since 2018. Basking sharks are still at risk globally because of the value of their fins to shark-fin fisheries (surely one of the most unsustainable catches of all time), for which they are directly targeted. Quoting a BBC article on basking sharks, they are 'also at risk of propeller damage from collision with boats and of entanglement in fishing gear, particularly the lines for static gear such as pots and creels for catching lobsters and crabs'. Concern over their status in Great Britain led to their legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (in 2000, although basking sharks were first named as a protected species on the Isle of Man under the Manx 1990 Wildlife Act).
Truly one of the most under-appreciated wonders of the seas around these Sceptr'd Isles.
The thing is, I've never seen one. So what? Well, the odds ought really to be skewed in my favour for incidental encounters, and not just on account of their enormous size. I am, by training, a marine biologist who grew up, studied, and have subsequently worked my whole career in Scotland; I've specialised in marine fish ecology; I've travelled extensively on Scotland's west coast and to its islands on the ferries of Caledonian MacBrayne, for work and pleasure; I've spent survey time on boats and on the coast up and down the west coast and on the Hebridean and northern islands; I even travelled right around the north, west and south coasts of Ireland one summer. Every chance I get, I will swim in the sea (for fun).
And I've never run across a basking shark. In fact, I keep missing them. Sometimes by minutes.
In the film there is actual footage of a basking shark (apparently filmed in the Firth of Lorne), purportedly swimming under the hero's rowing boat.
He returns later and harpoons a basking shark, kills it and cuts it up on the beach, before transferring it to an old freezer that he has bought. As a real, dead basking shark was shown (see below) being cut up on the shore (following a close-up shot of a harpoon in a real basking shark), I can only assume it was harpooned and killed for the film company by one of the existing Scottish basking shark fishermen of the time. I remember the sense of unfairness I felt in my boyhood breast at the time about the shark being killed and its flesh wasted for nothing (although a fictional account, a real shark was clearly killed).
I actually got my first potential professional involvement in basking sharks off to a nearly-flying start. In 1996, I was working for Scotland's statutory nature conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), in the marine and coastal conservation section. On the departure of a colleague, I was asked to take over the role of SNH project manager for a proposed project that hadn't begun, namely a collaboration with two academics at Durham University, Drs Mark O'Connell and Tim Thom, to attempt tracking of basking sharks with satellite tags. SNH provided funding to purchase four satellite tags and the darts that would allow them to be attached to basking sharks, with the aim spending an experimental season finding out more about the behaviour and movements of the sharks around the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde. As well as the tagging equipment, access was purchased, at an academic discount rate, to the Argos satellite run from Toulouse in France. My involvement, which commenced with a visit to Durham to meet Mark and Tim in early 1996, promptly ceased when I changed jobs and agencies in July 1996, moving on to the new Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and the project management role passed to one of my friends back in the SNH marine and coastal section. The subsequent field season around Arran in the summer of 1997 is well-described in detail in the lovely 2021 book: 'A Sea Monster's Tale: In search of the basking shark' by Colin Speedie.
I was pleased to discover that, many years later, Scottish Natural Heritage was involved in studies that generated much improved understanding of basking shark behaviour. Since 2012, SNH (now called Nature Scot) has been working with the University of Exeter to understand more about basking shark habitat use and behaviour using a variety of tagging technologies. A total of 61 satellite tags have been deployed on basking sharks, as part of the Nature Scot and University of Exeter partnership project to investigate their movements and results were published in Nature Scot's 2016 Research Report, as well as peer-reviewed scientific papers. Nature Scot was also involved in an international collaboration in 2019, using REMUS SharkCam - a sophisticated Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) designed, built and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the USA, which generated some amazing underwater film of basking sharks swimming near the Isles of Coll and Tiree. All of the SNH/Nature Scot basking shark work since 2012 is available here.
I think the first time I actually realised that I'd missed a great opportunity to see basking sharks was when my wife and I took our old campervan on the CalMac ferry to the Inner Hebridean islands of Coll and Tiree. This is when I first realised that the waters around these islands in summer are a real hotspot for basking sharks. On our first day on Coll, we visited the Post Office and, while Olivia was in buying postcards and stamps, I chatted in the warm summer sun to the Post Mistress's husband. He told me, unprompted, that there had been 37 basking sharks swimming in the harbour bay the week before. Missed by a week or so. Needless to say, the further pleasant, sunny week we spent on Coll and Tiree, and two further ferry trips, resulted in no shark sightings.
On a two week campervan holiday when we travelled around the Irish north-east, north, west and south coasts in high summer, no basking sharks were seen. On Achill Island, however, we took a trip out to the west end, to be informed at the beautiful bay at Keem, that there had been a basking shark swimming around the bay that morning.
But the most frustrating miss was surely on a campervan trip to northwest Scotland, when we were engaged on a seaweed survey for the plant charity, Plantlife Scotland. We were staying one evening in the campsite at the really beautiful Clachtoll Beach, and I donned my wetsuit and went for a late evening swim in the bay, with a beautiful sunset developing on the western horizon. After a great 20 minute swim, I went to the shower block and showered. As I came out of the shower block, a fellow camper approached me from the beach and said highly excitedly, in German-accented English: ‘Did you see the basking shark?’
I will find out soon enough if the sea around the Isle of Coll is indeed 'just the place' for a Shark - you'll have to await Fit The Second to find out! There are no guarantees. The trip will be great whatever happens, but we may see basking sharks, we may not. It’s such a beautiful area, with stunning seascapes and beaches, and packed with marine and island wildlife that, whatever happens, it will be an amazing experience and a real privilege to be there. There might be sharks and there might not. Watch this space…
[*Fit The First: in case you are wondering about this unusual phrase, I was tickled to discover that Lewis Carroll had made use of an archaic literary phrase for verses or chapters, namely ‘Fits’, in his poem, ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. I first encountered this use of ‘Fit’ in Douglas Adams’ adaptation of his books, ‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, for BBC radio. Each weekly episode was named as Fit The First, Fit The Second, etc. I’d always thought that this was just a conceit of his own but was delighted to learn, in reading around for this blog post, that he actually did it as a tribute to Carroll’s ‘The Hunting of the Snark’! I hope my Fit The Second, to follow my Coll trip, will not be in the nature of the agonies of The Hunting of the Snark!]
Thursday 30 June 2016
|British artillery at the Battle of the Somme|
Wull lived upstairs at the Torranyard Inn, in a room with no running water and no electricity, lit at night by paraffin lamps and with only an outside water closet (toilet). Dad said Wull had silken white hair and skin like a baby. But his skin was marked with blue where coal dust had been sealed into injuries picked up during his time in the mines. He wore a muffler (a woollen scarf) and an old light-checked Tweed suit and used to sit outside the back door of the pub in his bunnet (flat cap) with an old pair of binoculars. I have no doubt that this was probably what got Dad talking with him, as Dad was also a keenbirdwatcher and they probably found common ground there. He was apparently one for the pithy phrase. He used to say (from no doubt bitter experience),"Hunger's guid [good] kitchen" and, on hearing a young man at the bar holding forth that '"Money isn't everything", Wull apparently replied "Aye son, but it's a handy thing to have when you go to buy a loaf"! That latter one passed into our family treasure trove of sayings, to be oft-repeated. I think I would have liked Wull!
Wednesday 26 November 2014
Thursday night is fatbike night. My night out on my own. The Scottish summer's late evening sunlit riding opportunities have passed for another year. To ride on a November evening is to gird yourself with onion layers of merino, lycra, Goretex. A headtorch precariously wrapped around the helmet. Mighty bright double beam lights on the handlebars, a veritable pair of arclights to cut the night ahead, and a flashing red bobtail behind. One minute to nine, daughter a-bed, dinner digested, dishes done, I roll down the gravel drive, fat tyres kicking out the stones that the neighbours and I so recently barrowed in and raked out. Pulling out onto the road and thankfully it's quiet at this hour, the tarmac ride a necessary evil to take me to the woods and trails. Four inch wide tyres thrum on the blacktop, fish out of water, not really meant for this environment, impatient for the soft, the wet, the yielding of the off-road world.
Crossing over the motorway bridge, I soar above lorries, vans, cars and even motorbikes (with smaller wheels than mine), then it's down the dip, across the first watercourse of the trip, and up the hill to Cambusbarron church. I look left at the junction, see the house where John Grierson, the father of the documentary, spent his childhood. The man who first turned real stories into reel stories, real to reel. Then it's past the pub (and incredulous voices from the smokers outside the door as they spot the size of my wheels and tyres) and then the primary school as I climb gradually towards the quarry gate, rolling by quiet cul-de-sacs, their houses with softly golden glowing windows. No one is out here except me, this winter evening world a largely indoor one.
As I approach the quarry gate, my lights pick out a constellation of reflections from stacks of stockpiled traffic cones, a shoal of silver flashes that slide left and right as my lights swing back and forth, and then past me in my journey's flow. No one's parked here. It looks like I have the place to myself. As I cross the threshold at the quarry gate, it feels like I'm escaping. But I am surrounded by aliens. Non-native, invasive Japanese knotweed dying back for winter on my right and snowberry to the left, it's crop of gleaming white berries like oyster pearls in the light cast sideways from my bike. And I know the small quarry just up on the left is infested with pernicious alien peri-peri burr, out of my sight for now.
I'm struck by how absolutely still it is tonight. Not a breath of a breeze, nor twitch of a leaf. Only the sound of my tyres on the small gravel of the path and the quiet roll of chain on gears and jockey wheels. And, behind me now, less than a mile back, the noise of many other tyres, the sound of the motorway like an constant low exhaling.
It isn't cold, not even cool but, with conditions this still, it must the light cloud cover that's preventing the temperature from plunging like an inappropriate neckline at a wake. I do see a few stars but even these slip from view for now as I enter the tunnel of trees. My headlights arc back and forth with my increased effort as the path's slope steepens, a little at first, then dramatically. I am forced down the gears, already on the small chain ring at the front but, pleasingly after months of riding nearly every day, still having a couple in reserve on the rear sprocket. This is the only serious climb of the night and I begin to leak a little sweat. I am overdressed for a steep climb but, soon enough, I reach the boulders blocking what was once a road for engined vehicles and, jinking past those obstacles, I reach the flat plateau of gravel into which the hanging valley of the upper quarry opens From here, it will be a pretty steady run down to the quarry plant and access road. As I pedal and freewheel across this dark plain, a moving cone of brightness, gravels crunching underwheel, I see the soft houselights of the hill farms gleaming off to my right, and flashes from headlights on cars negotiating the North Third road's bends, undulations and slopes.
Then... looking around with my headtorch, I see a different light, not illumination but two glowing points of my reflected torch, the eyes of something, I know not what at first but which resolves itself into a roe deer ahead of me, and which slips quickly and silently off to the scrub on the right. It's the first deer I have seen tonight but won't be the last.
The downhill run is pleasant recovery after the climb and, all too soon, after a little weaving to find the path and negotiate more bouldery roadblocks, I pass the tall and currently silent white tower of the batching plant and my wheels glide in relative smoothness onto the access road. During the day, huge trucks may trundle up and down here with dusty plumes and roaring diesel engines but, tonight, there's just me and my bike, its whirring freewheel and the road buzz from my fat tyres. Slipping past the old limekilns on the left now, steep enough downhill for me to need to brake, conscious of the large metal gate ahead, which I need to come down off the saddle to walk the bike past.
Another short steep downhill, now on the North Third road but only until I reach the bend by the river, where our ways will diverge. On the way down, I see a searchbeam of torchlight, obviously handheld from its movements, as someone from one of the farms up the hill goes about their business. Then, I reach the river and peel off left on the bend, across the wee bridge. I look down into the fast-flowing current as I cross, my headtorch a poor illuminator as the water seems to suck in the lightbeam, giving nothing back, an aquatic event horizon.
Off the bridge, I wheel into a huge black cavern of tall trees, and the only real muddy patch of the ride, then out into the open air. The farm track, one of my favourite sections of this ride, offers many possibilities. But not for tonight, the enticing delights of the North Third cliff and wood paths. Rather, my ride takes me straight on down towards the Swanswater Fishery. Before I reach the junction offering such choices, a gleam of eyes picked out ahead by my headtorch presages the passage across my path of two more roe deer, their crossing rather panicked by my rattling, whirring cone of light. The farm track is dry tonight and the usual mix of hard-packed earth, cobbly stones and hollows, not puddle-filled tonight. It makes for a slightly weaving, slightly downhill run as I try to find the smoothest line in the view allowed by my lights. And it is a pretty smooth ride, the four inch deep tyres playing give and take with holes, rocks, bumps and buffeting from the track. As I reach the first ponds of the fishery, the sound of rushing, gurgling water reaches me with an odd doppler effect as I pass over small streams draining through the site. On summer rides through here, the pond banks are dotted with silent sentinel anglers, in their own bubbles of focus and concentration. Not tonight. The lights in the windows of the scattered houses by the fishery provide the only other signs of human life.
All too quickly, I reach another tarmac road and the occasional four wheel drive flicks by, headlamps blazing and windows dark, heading home into the hills. Again, my time on the road is brief, although here, the closeness of the motorway, less than a couple of hundred metres away provides the dominant soundtrack as I sneak along to connect to the next section of path.
Through a farmyard and past the 'big hoose', the path bends down to the Bannockburn, its presence heard and felt in the dark, rather than seen. As I descend the narrow path, the temperature falls some degrees, into a nearly frosty pocket along the burn side. Glistening dew is not far from freezing, if that sky clears a little more. I need to cross the Bannockburn to reach the next stage of the ride, Tinker's Loan, and roll cautiously across the old, narrow and frankly crumbling stone bridge, not the greatest fun in the dark. Another tunnel of trees and a steady climb up Tinker's Loan, my lights filling the narrow space of the path, hedges and tree'd ceiling. A pair of wood pigeons explode from a tree above me, battering out through the branches, their staccato machine gun wing flaps, the percussion instruments of fear.
Winding steadily up, I cross the road that runs down to Gateside and catch an eyeful of the night-time Forth Valley laid out before me. Streetlights, house lights, floodlights, car headlights, beacons flash on pylons pinprick on the retinas before I dip into the Loan again, downhill now and then a final short climb up to the other end of this narrow and surely ancient way. I can smell cows and see on the right, at path's end, solid darker blocks in the darkness, betrayed by odour. Now it really is all downhill from here as I whizz, woohooing, down the Polmaise Road towards home. My tyres fling off the detritus of the offroad world, a shower of flashes flaring in front of my lights. I reach the motorway again and streetlights and the ride feels like it is already over, so I extend the magic a little longer by cutting through the community wood, scattering rabbits from the pathside verges and rousing a late night dog walker from his quiet thoughts. As we exchange hellos, I realise he's the first person I've seen since I passed the pub and that's the first word I've spoken since leaving the house... And then, I'm home.
What's so special about riding alone and off-road at night? Maybe it wouldn't be your thing but, in reflecting a little on my solo bike trip in the dark last Thursday night, I realised that it put my state of mind in a special place. The description that sprang to mind was... Mindfulness. According to Wikipedia, "Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment" It's all about being in the moment, observing, focussing on the now. And although it was a ride of only 50 minutes or so, not long by typical training ride standards, it felt longer in a good way, a flood of simple observations, awareness of my bike, my body, the environment I was passing through, and no conversation (until I was two minutes from home), leaving me feeling refreshed and relaxed. And all that on top of the physical exercise that was my original motivation.
P.S. What's a fatbike? This is mine!
Wednesday 10 September 2014
|Quite attractive - but wait, what are those dotty, spotty things on the sun?|
|Sunspots but perhaps you can't quite make them out so...|
|Sunspot activity for today, 10th September|
And what are sunspots? Read this from Wikipedia.